Prolonged Cough In Infants – Are Complications of Whooping Cough Life Threatening?

Prolonged Cough In Infants – Are Complications of Whooping Cough Life Threatening?

There are few diseases which are frightening to parents and whooping cough is one of them. This is because of all the cough types, whooping cough is one that disturbs the children most. Below is everything you need to know about this highly contagious disease.

Whooping cough

Also known as pertussis, whooping cough is a severe respiratory tract infection that causes a violent cough followed by high-pitched breath intake that sounds like a whoop, hence the name. The infection is caused by bacteria named Bordetella Pertussis. Whooping cough can affect people of any age group, however, young children and infants are more vulnerable.

Prevalence and mortality rate of whooping cough

According to WHO, the 2008 global vaccination against whooping cough prevented about 6.8 lakh deaths. It is estimated that about 16.5 million were affected by this disease in the year 2015. The same year witnessed around 60,000 deaths, down from 1.3 lakh deaths in the year 1990.

In India, there were about 31,000 cases of whooping cough reported in the year 2015, out of which 4 succumbed to infection. The incidence of pertussis in India has sharply declined after the launch of Universal Immunization Program (UIP). Prior to vaccination, over 2 lakh cases and 106 deaths were reported in 1970.

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Symptoms – Check for these signs of whooping cough

Once you are infected with the bacteria, it takes about 5-10 days for the symptoms to appear. In some cases, symptoms might not be visible for up to 3 weeks, as per Centers for Disease Control. Initial symptoms might mimic the signs of common cold including cough, running nose and fever. However, within 2 weeks, the cough turns into a dry and persistent cough which can make breathing very difficult.

The whoop sound is often made by infants and young children whenever they try to take a breath after coughing spells. Check for these signs after a week or two:

Symptoms of whooping cough in infants and children

  • Blue or purplish skin around the mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Low-grade fever
  • Difficulty in breathing

Symptoms of whooping cough in adults

  • Prolonged coughing spells followed by breathing difficulty
  • Vomiting after coughing spells
  • Exhaustion after coughing spells

Diagnosis of whooping cough

If you or your little one is experiencing symptoms, contact the doctor without delay, especially if you or your child is not immunized. The condition is highly contagious as bacteria can spread through sneezing, coughing, laughing or kissing.

Diagnosis in the early stages can be difficult as the signs and symptoms can resemble to those of cold or flu. In some cases, the doctor can easily diagnose by asking about symptoms or just by listening to the cough sound. Some may order medical tests to confirm the diagnosis:

Nose or throat culture test – The doctor would be taking a swab sample of the nasal area to determine the presence of bacteria.

Blood tests – The doctor may also take a blood sample for lab testing the number of white blood cells. These cells help the body fight against infections. So, if the white blood cells count is high, it means the presence of infection and the body is fighting against it. This is typically a general test and not specifically related to pertussis.

X-ray – You might have to undergo chest X-ray to analyze the presence of any inflammation or fluid in the lungs. This can occur when pneumonia is accompanied by whooping cough or other such respiratory infections.

Complications – How serious whooping cough can be?

While most teens and adults are able to recover from whooping cough, it can be dangerous in babies who are less than 6 months of age. Below are complications of whooping cough in adults and infants:

Complications in infants and young children

Complications of whooping cough in infants are more serious and they require close monitoring to prevent further worsening the condition. Complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Slowed or stopped breathing (apnea)
  • Dehydration and weight loss due to feeding problems
  • Seizures
  • Uncontrollable or rapid shaking (convulsions)
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Brain damage

Complications in teens and adults

Teens and adults can also experience complications including:

  • Urinary incontinence
  • Pneumonia
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rib fracture due to violent coughing
  • Broken blood vessels in the skin
  • Stomach hernias

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Treatment of whooping cough

If whooping cough affect infants, it can be more dangerous. Typically, infants then need to be hospitalized and put under close monitoring. Below are the treatment options for whooping cough:

  • In case of dehydration, intravenous (IV) fluids are administered.
  • Antibiotics work best in treating whooping cough. The doctor can recommend azithromycin or erythromycin to people who are suffering from cough longer than 3-4 weeks.
  • Vaccination provides immunity against the infection.
  • Bed rest and drinking plenty of fluids will help you get better quickly.

Over the counter cough medicines have little or no effect and are usually discouraged.

Prevention - Vaccination schedule in India for whooping cough

The best way to keep off whooping cough is to get vaccinated against it. The doctors often combine the vaccine with other serious infections such as diphtheria and tetanus. The vaccination program for pertussis in India started under Universal Immunization Program (UIP). Below is the vaccination schedule of whooping cough in India.

  1. First dose – At 6 weeks
  2. Second dose – At 10 weeks
  3. Third dose – At 14 weeks
  4. First booster dose – At 16-18 months
  5. Second booster dose – At 4-6 years of age

Side effects of vaccination are usually mild including headache, fever or soreness at the injection site.


Children are not the only who are vulnerable to the disease, teens and adults can also be affected. Symptoms of pertussis can last from 4-6 weeks even during the course of treatment. So, early medical intervention is extremely necessary.

Infants and younger children are at highest risk and need to be closely watched during the treatment. If the symptoms of whooping cough persist for more than a week, contact the doctor without delay. Get vaccinated at first place so that it doesn’t occur.


1. Pertussis (Whooping Cough)(2017, August 07). CDC read more
2. Whooping Cough (Pertussis)(2016, February). KidsHealth read more
3. Whooping cough(2016, May 24). NHS read more